When Orascom Construction Industries expressed interest last summer in 300 acres of Quad-City farmland for a new fertilizer plant, the project re-energized a goal of having large-scale tracts ready for development across the area.
Although the Egyptian company eventually chose a site in Lee County, Iowa, the experience led the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce to move forward with a planning process for identifying land in Scott and Rock Island counties to become certified sites.
Bill Martin, the chamber’s senior vice president of economic development, said the chamber wants to identify large tracts — 250 acres or more — that are ready for development. The sites must have, or be near, all the necessary types of infrastructure: sewer, water, gas and fiber optics and have highways and rail access. The site also must be properly zoned, outside the 100-year floodplain and have a firm price.
A certified site, he said, tells developers and site consultants that the land has had a certain level of investigation, such as environmental and geotechnical studies, to determine if it is suitable for industrial facilities.
“We want to have it certified because companies in the early phase (of site selection) will look for reasons to eliminate communities,” Martin said. If a site lacks some of the criteria, “you can get eliminated quickly because those are all cost factors to a company. So, time is money.”
A site that is certified has undergone a process that can examine as many as 200 factors to determine its suitability for industrial development. Detailed maps, studies, reports and letters are used to validate the information, and the site typically is verified by an engineering firm before it officially certified.
Tara Barney, the chamber’s CEO, said Quad-Cities First, the chamber’s marketing and business recruitment arm, has been using a similar model.
“The difference now is we’re going to have a neutral expert come in and ratify our work,” she said.
After several sites have been identified, the chamber plans to hire a consultant to rank the top five for future development on each side of the river, Martin said.
Martin said a certified site would have to have a willing seller or sellers.
“This is not an eminent domain type thing,” he said.
Once a consultant helps identify the best prospective industrial sites, Barney said, the process could lead to area governments and others pursuing a public-private partnership to ensure the land is ready.
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“This is all about speed and not going down a dead-end path (for the prospective company),” she said.
Having a certified sites process also would make the Quad-Cities more competitive with other states and regions that have their own certified sites, she said. Barney pointed to the successes some of them are having in luring new economic development.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, a multi-state consortium that leads economic development in parts of seven Southern states, including all of Tennessee, has certified seven mega-sites, which are 1,000 acres or more.
Martin added that developers and site selectors now are indicating that site availability is a key factor in the selection process. In an annual survey by Area Development, a magazine for corporate site selection and relocation, the availability of land jumped from the 12th most important factor in 2011 to fifth in 2012.
Barney and Martin said most of the initial investigation in the certification process will be completed in-house by chamber staff. But the chamber is asking Scott and Rock Island counties to contribute to the $25,000 cost of hiring a consultant. Scott County has formally agreed to provide one-third of the cost. Chamber leaders recently met with Rock Island County officials.
Tim Huey, Scott County’s planning director, said the certified sites program is a relatively new economic development tool.
“Out in our (Eastern Iowa) industrial park, we have sites available, but they haven’t gone through this certified process,” he said. “We want to be ready.”